New Zealand Law Society - A woman of immense integrity

A woman of immense integrity

Shirley Smith was a “woman of immense integrity,” according to her son-in-law Keith Ovenden.

By Frank Neill

Shirley Smith was a “woman of immense integrity,” according to her son-in-law Keith Ovenden.

LawTalk spoke to Mr Ovenden following publication of his memoir of his parents-in-law, the famous economist Bill Sutch and renowned Wellington lawyer Shirley Smith, who has an annual lecture presented in her honour.

Named Bill & Shirley a memoir, Mr Ovenden’s book is published by Massey University Press, ISBN 978-0-9951319-3-5.

Shirley Smith had a “very determined approach to any task that she undertook and a desire to make her mark in the world by helping people make their mark in the world,” says Mr Ovenden, who married Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith’s only child, Helen.

However, she was vulnerable “like all of us” to criticism and was “deeply regretful of errors of judgement that she felt that she had made and always tried to correct them if she could”.

“I do not know anyone who knew her who didn’t value her friendship very highly,” Mr Ovenden says.

The daughter of barrister and judge Sir David Smith, Shirley did not initially study law at university. Instead, she studied classics at Oxford University in England before returning to New Zealand to teach in Auckland University’s Classics Department.

She attended a lecture in New York on the Commission on the Status of Women. This, along with the strong interest she already had on women’s issues, inspired her to train as a lawyer. On returning to New Zealand in 1951, she enrolled in Victoria University’s law faculty.

After graduating in 1957, Shirley Smith joined Victoria University’s law school, becoming the first woman in New Zealand to lecture in law and become a full member of a law faculty. She was also the first editor of the Victoria University of Wellington Law Review.

Pioneering woman

Her preference, however, was to leave the world of academia to practise as a sole practitioner.

“I think she was the first woman [in New Zealand] to open a sole legal practice,” Mr Ovenden says.

“She was, in her practice, answering a genuine demand and a genuine need. A lot of her clients were women trapped in difficult and even dangerous relationships,” he says.

She picked up a lot of legal aid work, covering both criminal and family law cases.

As well as the legal dimension of her work, Shirley Smith also understood that there was a social welfare aspect to her law practice. “There were a lot of people who needed help,” Mr Ovenden says, and she would do her best to ensure people received the help they needed.

His experience as her son-in-law has been “more than interesting,” Mr Ovenden says. In fact, she was “there as a presence in my adult life, as was her husband, even after they had long died, far more than my own parents”.

Hard as his relationship with his parents-in-law was for a while, “it has made us closer and I think it has strengthened the whole family.”

In his memoir, Mr Ovenden outlines his relationship with his parents-in-law, and the difficulties he faced from his perspective.

He also provides his perspectives on the famous people his parents-in-law were.

Spying claim, and trial

Bill Sutch made a huge contribution to the development of the New Zealand economy, particularly as head of the Department of Industries and Commerce.

Long after he left that role, the SIS claimed that he passed official government information (which they did not specify) to the Soviet Union. Dr Sutch was arrested in September 1974 and charged under the Official Secrets Act 1951.

His high-profile trial ended with a jury acquitting him. But by that time he was not well, and died some six months after the trial.

Shirley Smith was in a class of her own, Mr Ovenden says.

“She was well-known, and rightly so, as a doughty fighter for women’s rights and for female equality of opportunity across the whole of society.”

The book also references Shirley Smith’s keen interest in the need to address miscarriages of justice.

“So it was with Arthur Allan Thomas, a man convicted of murder [of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe] on the strength of evidence, as subsequently shown, that had been planted by the senior investigating detective.

“Shirley developed a strong friendship with the journalist Pat Booth, who had set his mind to unearthing the reprehensible details of this murky affair, and committed herself to long days of legwork in the search for the truth, including many hours of research in the law library as well as visits to the remote farms that were locations in the crime and its aftermath.

“Her delight when Thomas, after many years in prison, was eventually cleared of the murders and awarded substantial compensation, was great.

“She saw it as vindication of her understanding of how a legal system should function: able to correct its errors so as to ensure justice.”

These are but a few glimpses into Mr Ovenden’s memories of his famous parents-in-law. The memoir contains many more. ▪

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